Fabrice Luchini plays Martin Joubert, who lives with his wife and teenage son, while managing his family business – a local bakery in a small, village in Normandy, France. He soon becomes enamoured with his new neighbours, when the newly-wed English couple Gemma (Gemma Arterton) and Charlie Bovery (Jason Flemyng) move in. Taken aback by the likeness in the former’s name to Flaubert’s heroine (‘Emma Bovary’) – Martin becomes beguiled by the beautiful woman, watching on as her life begins to imitate that of her almost-literary namesake.
There’s a touch of Francois Ozon to this tale, with evident similarities between Gemma Bovery and the esteemed filmmaker’s In the House, as they examine – in a surrealistic, quaint manner – the lack of distinction between reality and fiction. They share a similar tone, particularly in the playful nature of this indelible endeavour, even if this is without that barbed, satirical undercurrent. Fontaine’s feature – which is unspeakably better than her preceding project Adore – revels in the meta approach, as art imitates life, imitating art. Or something like that.
Of course the one common denominator between this and In the House is Luchini, who plays a relatively similar character; somebody who becomes immersed in the lives of others, and it’s a role he plays so perfectly, displaying his wonderful aptitude for comic timing. But he just has these particular sensibilities that make him the ideal entry point – with a bewildered, almost Harpo Marx look smacked across his face, as though he’s always surprised – and if not, then at least hoping he may be. It’s almost mischievous, he revels in the surreal, extravagance of life.
He’s matched at every turn by Arterton, as the actress is so seductive and bewitching in her role. This needs to the be the case, as she’s supposed to be this almost mythical figure, a sexual goddess of sorts – and yet maintain that, quite literal in this case, girl next door demeanour. This notion is enhanced by the fact we see everything from the male gaze, as Martin is something of a voyeur, as we witness her life from his perspective. It adds to the allure of Gemma, as the lingering shots, just of her neck or her arms, make her appear as something so wondrous, and yet something out of reach.
On a more negative note, as Fontaine thrives so predominantly in the more comic elements of this narrative, it does become a struggle for the viewer to become invested emotionally, and given this is a play on the Flaubert masterpiece, which is ineffably poignant, it does feel like we’re missing a trick somewhat. But it doesn’t prove to be hugely detrimental, as this frivolous and light tone is evidently what Fontaine is vying for, even if it does make for a picture that’s somewhat disengaging in parts.